Shows - Review
Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode: Underworld (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
One of the good things about bad Who is that is really makes you appreciate good Who. And Underworld is one of those stories that, in most fans assessments, falls into the category of bad Who.
I'll admit that Underworld isn't even close to my top ten of all-time great Who. In fact, it's one of the last Tom Baker stories I saw (my PBS station skipped it in my first rotation through the Tom Baker years). To make up for missing it in my first run-through of Who, I read the novelization, which while not Earth shattering, painting some strong pictures in my head of how the story look, feel and sound once I finally got to see it on-screen. So, the first time I saw it, I was sort of looking forward to Underworld.
And to be honest, I've not really watched it much since that time I first saw it all those years ago. I've had it on tape for years, but it was more out of a sense of being an obsessive Who completist than an actual love of the story. There was very little danger of my wearing out the tape re-watching this one, as I would do with, let's say Curse of Fenric or Pyramids of Mars.
And so, Underworld languished in my memory as a rather pedestrian Who story. But something nagged at me -- perhaps I hadn't given it a fair shot. Maybe I should give it another chance. Then, the VHS release came along and, again, being a completist I snapped it up. Now, given that ever since WB took over the distribution of the videos, I've got at least half of my newly purchased Who vids that won't work, I came home, tore off the wrapper and put Underworld into the VCR. Thankfully, it worked and I didn't have to exchange it three times like I have some other Who vids I've got in the past couple of years. And since it worked, it was running and I wasn't feeling particularly well, I decided to give Underworld another viewing.
And for a few moments, I had some hope that maybe, just maybe it might impress me this time. Maybe this time it would rocket up my list from bad Who to good Who. Maybe time would help it out and make it a better story in my estimation.
Sadly, it didn't happen.
I'll go so far to say that Underworld isn't necessarily in the same realm that I consider The Gunfighters or The Web Planet. But neither is it in the realm of great Who like Pyramids of Mars.
For one thing, the visuals are a huge let down. There is never more apparent than when you view the story in the better quality VHS release. The overuse of CSO makes the entire thing looks so incredibly fake that it takes us out of whatever progress the story is trying to make on screen. Honestly, I know that Who has a limited budget, but I far prefer them actually building a cave set and trying to film it in new ways as was done in Caves of Androzani, than trying to convince us that this is actually a huge cave with lots of unique caverns done on CSO where it obviously looks extremely fake.
Also, you have to add to this a cast that is taking underacting to new depths. Everyone here seems bored -- especially Tom Baker, who seems to alternate between bored and embarrassed by the whole thing. The scene with the Doctor waving his scarf to dissipate the thick gas in the cave is just bad and you can tell that Tom thinks so during the scene. Seeing this story, it's easy to see why Louise Jameson got fed up with Leela and decided to leave. She is nothing more than a two-dimensional savage here, meant to be the butt of jokes when she's not being neutralized by the Minyans' "don't worry, be happy" gun. Add to it that the Minyans are all largely forgettable and that Imogen Bickford-Smith is in there to be eye-candy and little else (does she even have a line after episode one?) and you've got some pretty bad elements for a Who story.
And then, there's the script from the writing duo of Bob Baker and Dave Martin. When it comes to Baker and Martin, less is definitely more. And by this, I mean, the fewer episodes you ask them to write, the better it seems to be. Exhibit A: The Sontaran Experiment -- two episodes that are tightly written and may be their best Who offering. Exhibit B: The Mutants -- six episodes stuffed to the gills with padding and plot redundancy. Luckily Underworld is only four episodes, so the padding isn't too bad here. But the story isn't really that great. Cribbing the story of Jason and the Argonauts is not necessarily a good thing -- unless you tell it well. And they don't tell it well. Also, putting in the intentional winks at the audience in episode four as if to say -- golly, look at how clever we are! are a bit much. Baker and Martin have clearly run out of gas at this point and probably should have retired while they were ahead.
But for all that's wrong with the story, there are one or two things that are right. The concept of seeing why the Time Lords adopted their policy of non-intervention was a good idea, even if it's only brought up at convenient times. Then, the idea of a group of people who spend thousands of years in an obsessive quest (sort of like how I feel sometimes about trying to find lost Who episodes) is a good one. But the problem becomes that they get too content once the quest is done. I found myself wishing that we'd see what happens afterwards -- we spent a 1000 years looking for this thing and now we've got it. So, now what? Do we all go to DisneyWorld?
So, I've got to say that after viewing Underworld this time out, it's probably going to go back to where it was in my collection -- collecting dust for a few years until my memory of it fades a bit and I give it yet another chance. Until then, I think I'll work on wearing out my copy of Pyramids of Mars... at least until the Beeb sees fit to release that one on DVD, that is.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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